Photo by Judith Hausman
It’s a rainy, rainy day, and a rain we sorely need here in the Hudson Valley. Despite the rain, I had to go get the quince today, or else I’d have been too late for them.
About three years ago, I discovered the little orchard that my friend’s dad had planted and since have been given permission to raid it for quince every fall. The bumpy, beautiful fruit is rock-hard and wormy but with patience and trimming, I make deep-rose membrillo (quince paste), the traditional Hispanic accompaniment to cheese. I’ve managed a knock-out quince tarte Tatin, too, by first gently cooking the fruits in butter and red wine.
Anyway, rain or not, it was time. It’s my own private tradition to honor the bounty that these neglected trees still produce in good faith, even if no one cares for them or eats their lovely fruit.
Except there were no quince.
Instead, I got another humbling lesson in seasonality. Some years, there are quince, and some years in the cycle of the trees, it’s so dry the quince don’t make it. The small orchard, bounded with stone walls and a suburban elementary school, was quiet, breezy and wet, but the trees had no fruit at all.
I still got to perform my ritual, though. The orchard also contains two kinds of apple trees, and I was able to pick about a half-bushel of the matte, tan, web-skinned variety. Even with judicious trimming, there will be enough of the dry, tart flesh to make smooth, brown apple butter without sugar. And I gathered several branches of elderberry clusters from young bushes growing under the trees. They make a great combination with apples. Rather than humble pie, I’ll spread humble apple-elderberry butter on my toast and give it for gifts along with a wooden spreader and a batch of homemade muffins. Next year, there will (probably) be quince again.
In contrast to these trees, the parking lot pear tree I pilfer yearly has been drooping with small, green-yellow pears. They can be hard and a little wormy, but I had the patience to let them ripen to sweeter softness on the tree a little longer this year. I have already put up two jars of quartered pears in brandy, star anise and ginger and three more jars of sliced pears, layered with prune plums and ground cherries, in rum, cinnamon and sage leaves. I’m going to try a batch with vanilla bean and rosemary, too.
I filled clean jars with the cut fruit and the seasonings, sprinkled each layer generously with sugar, carefully poured in the booze, and then closed the jars. This has got to be the easiest way there is to capture the local fruit harvest and, boy, oh boy, will those jars make impressive gifts.
I may package the pears with a pear candle or a funky, vintage serving spoon. The rumtopf (rum-soaked fruit) partners well with a small lemon pound cake or lemon shortbread cookies and a few tiny aperitif glasses. Of course, good vanilla ice cream is the reliable and luxurious default accompaniment for any “drunken” fruit, not just my favorites: the foraged bagsful from forgotten trees.